Friday, May 20, 2011

Cramming For Finals

Today's students are caught in a conundrum. As pressure increases on them to achieve higher grades, fewer jobs await them in a marketplace crippled by high levels of unemployment. Despite the eagerness of parents to see their children become self-sufficient, families across America are now confronting the brutal reality that, for many of today's college graduates, there's still no place like home.

One of the sad legacies of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is that it teaches children how to memorize material that will be on a standardized exam without bothering to learn much else. If students only "study to the test," how can they possibly develop the critical thinking skills they will need later in life?

Some families, aware of the need for survival skills, take extraordinary measures to ensure their child's future success. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the pressure to develop the kind of social skills which will help a youngster nail an appropriate mate. Two new plays explore what happens when someone sets unreasonably high standards for satisfaction.

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I cannot ever recall reading a script and coming across a description of the protagonist like the one written by Arisa White:

"William, male, 15 years old, white, upper middle class, suburban; introverted, lanky, attractive, sophomore in high school. Flexible enough to fit into a refrigerator."

Directed by Jon Tracy, White's raucous two-character, one-act play entitled Frigidare was recently staged as part of the Best of Playground Festival. Those who like to collect maternal monsters like Rose Hovick (Gypsy: A Musical Fable), Madame Rosepettle (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad), and Mrs. Iselin (The Manchurian Candidate), can now add Mrs. Logan to their list of dysfunctional divas.

This is a woman who, having decided that her son would probably be better off if he turned out to be gay, has remained resolutely focused on her mission.  Having had William kidnapped for three days at the age of 10 (so that he could "tell a story no one else could tell"), Mrs. Logan doesn't hesitate to remind him that "I do these things so you will have some kind of difficulty in your life -- to build your character, William. You will abandon the Lord your God and skip into Giovanni's Room!"

As Frigidare begins, the audience sees a flustered William returning home from church where, to his mother's keen satisfaction, he has just been sexually assaulted by a member of the clergy. Torn between the physical temptations and carnal delights he just experienced -- thanks in no small part to the talented, warm mouth of his priest -- William is desperately searching for a hiding place where he can calm down ("Fuckin' body has its own mind -- doesn't care who gives it pleasure!").

William )Michael Phillis) and Mrs. Logan (Holli Hornlien) in Frigidare
(Photo by: Mellopix performance)

After emptying the contents of the kitchen cabinets (when he was 12 and wearing his astronaut pajamas, William once hid in an overhead cabinet in the guest bedroom), he finally empties the refrigerator, climbs in, and desperately pulls the door shut behind him. Needless to say, his attempt to find a moment of solitude is thwarted by the arrival of his conniving mother, who has no sense of boundaries whatsoever.

White's black comedy is bizarre, brief, and breathtakingly brutal. Kudos go to Michael Phillis as the confused young William and Holli Hornlien as his misguided, but relentlessly driven mother.

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In his recent article entitled The League of Extraordinary Stereotypes, Jeff Yang pointed out that May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As part of his analysis of how Asians have been portrayed in comic books from 1942-1986, he describes the two stereotypes of Asian women (referred to by Wikipedia as the hypersexual Dragon Lady and the China Doll) in the following manner:
"There is the Lotus Blossom: The long-suffering wife, the left-behind lover; the hostage, the victim, the betrayed and forgotten. She is patient in her doomed love and passive to her predestined fate -- which is to be abused, abased, exploited and ultimately, destroyed by the man she loves.
Where you have the Lotus, you must have her complement, the Temptress-- the exotic seductress, who uses her feminine wiles and sexual prowess to beguile and betray; the femme fatale as false of heart as she is lush of body, whose mocking laughter may well be the last thing you'll ever hear."
This month also saw the publication of Wesley Yang's essay, Paper Tigers, in New York Magazine. The article's subtitle asks:  "What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?"

Encapsulating the biggest fears and best fantasies expressed in these two articles is Philip Kan Gotanda's new play, Love in American Times, which opened this week at the San Jose Rep. I suspect, however, that the play's premiere had less to do with celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month than with ending the company's 30th anniversary season with the world premiere of a new play by a celebrated American playwright who was born in Stockton and lives in the Bay area.

Love in American Times begins with a meeting arranged by a professional matchmaker, the kind whose clientele sits at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. In the past, such matches might be made for royalty or the scion of a wealthy family. In Gotanda's play, the pre-arranged match is between two exceptionally bull-headed individuals.

Jack B. Heller (J. Michael Flynn) is a corporate titan who, at 70 years of age, is remarkably fit, frighteningly wealthy, socially clumsy, and brutally boorish. Although he and his estranged wife Abby (Rosina Reynolds) have lived apart for the past 15 years, he is now eager to get a divorce so he can marry a young trophy bride. Jack wants an extremely attractive Asian woman who will keep him sexually satisfied and put his needs above all others for the five years he expects to remain in good health.

Needless to say, Jack's son Edward (Craig Marker), who has been expecting to inherit the family's wealth, is less than thrilled with his father's plan. Jack's daughter, Sophie (Arwen Anderson), has made so many attempts to find herself through drugs, alcohol, music, and dark-skinned lovers of both genders that her innate sweetness has disappeared behind a cloud of migraines,  hangovers, and manic depressive attacks.

Jack Heller (J. Michael Flynn) and Scarlett Mori-Yang (Linda Park)
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Scarlett Mori-Yang (Linda Park) is a brilliant 33-year-old Asian beauty with a formidable intellect. Part Korean and part Japanese, she chose to enter the nonprofit world (where she could quickly rise to a position of power and dominance) rather than struggling to make her way up the corporate ladder. Scarlett -- who wants to have children from a husband who is obscenely wealthy --  has done enough fundraising to become a tough negotiator who can hold her own against the "big boys." She knows what they want and doesn't hesitate to inform Jack that she won't fuck him until he marries her.

Jack's sufficiently impressed with Scarlett to show her the coffin he built for himself as a secret place where he can go and scream until his eyes nearly pop out of his head as he tries to exorcise his demons. Scarlett has her own ghosts to contend with.

As directed by Rick Lombardo, the first act of Gotanda's play comes off like an intellectual wrestling match to see which of these two will triumph -- or if one will simply pick up his bargaining chips and go home alone. Act II takes place at Christmastime aboard Jack's yacht.

Edward and his wife, Lyonee (Zarah Mahler), are trying to enjoy themselves while Abby badgers Sophie. The standard level of familial hostility seems to have abated temporarily until a speedboat approaches and Scarlett (who was supposed to be shopping with friends in Buenos Aires) climbs aboard.

Edward Heller (Craig Marker) and his wife Lyonee (Zarah Mahler)
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

This was not supposed to happen. Part of their nuptial agreement (which was created with the cold-blooded precision of corporate attorneys) stated that Scarlett was to leave Jack alone with his family at Christmastime. But, to everyone's surprise, she's pregnant (Jack did not want any more children) and, in a way that surprises even Scarlett, in love with her husband.

With all its back-biting power plays and family intrigue, Love in American Times is never going to be a "feel-good" dramedy. Gotanda's script does a thorough job of insulting every possible ethnicity and traditional concept of marriage. Jack and his family seem like fairly loathsome country club Republicans while Scarlett comes across as a micro-managing Dragon Lady who should definitely be feared. As the caustic Abby notes, "She got points when she sent the helicopter back."

Love in American Times raises sticky questions about what one wants from a partner, what one has the right to demand prior to entering into a relationship, and how one should expect to be treated after the initial blush of love wears thin. With sets by Robin Sanford and costumes by Cathleen Edwards, Gotanda's play develops a curious momentum that keeps the audience wondering what will happen to Jack and Scarlett.

Linda Park and J. Michael Flynn give two powerful performances in the lead roles, ably supported by Craig Marker, Zarah Mahler, and Arwen Anderson. Rosina Reynolds does triple duty as Desiree (Jack's sommelier), his matchmaker (Mrs. Green), and his first wife. Gabriel Marin appears in a variety of small roles.

Rosina Reynolds as Jack's first wife, Abby (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Love in American Times is a play whose characters end up swimming with sharks on their first date and, surprisingly, in the warm Caribbean waters near the play's finale. Performances continue through June 5 at San Jose Rep (you can order tickets here).

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